First Preview of LEGO Universe

LEGO Universe Creative Director Ryan Seabury and LEGO's Mark Hansen took Ten Ton Hammer on a tour of the first three play areas of the game. The visuals are genuinely and impressively LEGO, the customization is first rate, the fun social tchotchkes are all in place, and the gameplay has plenty of action combat-oriented platforming and puzzling appeal. LEGO Universe has style a-plenty, but does it have group-driven substance to match? Will the game appeal to LEGO lovers of all ages? At first blush, we certainly think so. Our first analysis in Ten Ton Hammer's first ever preview of LEGO Universe!

LEGOs produced more than 50 years ago are compatible with today's
bricks, and almost three generations of kids have fueled their
imaginations with the iconic interlocking plastic toys. But when LEGO
Star Wars first appeared in 2005, it was an instant classic and marked
perhaps the first time a toy IP found critical success (as
opposed to just financial success) in the video game marketplace. The
appeal of the Traveler's Tales games (LEGO Star Wars, Indiana Jones,
Batman, and now RockBand) for adult gamers has always been a winning
blend of nostalgia and simple amusement, combined with strikingly
gameplay depth. Even for kids, the LEGO games are so rigorously
polished that even the most playful moves are anticipated, lending the
game a dynamic feel seldom found at a comparatively low price point
that parents no doubt love. 

All that paved the way for a comprehensive online treatment of the LEGO
ideal, and we've been excited to see more of LEGO Universe ever since
our friends at NetDevil revealed they were developing the
family-friendly game in June 2007. Last week, Ten Ton Hammer was on-hand the
first live in-game demo of LEGO Universe. LEGO’s Mark Hansen
and NetDevil Creative Director Ryan Seabury
head-manned the demo, which covered the opening tutorial and first two
playable worlds: Avant Gardens and Gnarled Forest.

Starting Out in LEGO Universe

Everything from the login screen forward had more production value than
we were used to in a first reveal. Bouncey interface elements combined
with a LEGO “mini-fig” (the iconic lego character) gesturing throughout
the login process. For example, the minifig covered its eyes as the
password was entered, and the practical purpose of which, Ryan
explained, was to teach younger players that passwords should remain a
secret. It’s a simple clue that kids have actually picked up on much
better than a textual warning in testing, Ryan intimated. Each account
has four character slots, complete with a fun exploding minifig
animation when you delete a character. The LEGO ID we used to sign in
is something you can sign up for today at href="">
Just to show that the backend technology is well underway, Ryan noted
that though the demo was held in San Francisco, the server was located
in Miami, and a group of QA testers from Montreal teamed up with
for the entire demo.

Character creation started out with a glowing “creative spark” which,
as Ryan explained, is the immortal soul of the mini-fig and "can never
be extinguished." Players can create a surprisingly unique minifig from
the outfit options and facial features available, though all mini-figs
are the same size. This one size fits all approach allows NetDevil
animators to create an astonishing variety of poses, emotes, and
animations, as I saw later. Character creation retained the playful
approach of the login screen: players will scroll through racks of
color-adjustable clothing and an astonishing, well-presented variety of
facial features and hair pieces, rather than force players to wheedle
through clumsy checkboxes and sliders. Ryan promised that what we saw
was just the tip of the iceberg. “There’s so many items we can draw
from the past, from the present, and we’ll even be introducing a few
new things for LEGO Universe.”

Since a backstory cinematic that would greet new players upon their
first login wasn’t quite ready yet, the curtain opened on an epicly
damaged spaceship that will serve as the game’s
tutorial area. Demoed on a 42 inch HDTV in full 1080p, I was
immediately impressed with both how crisp, clean, and nearly tangible
minifigs and game environment looked and how hiccup-free the demo
experience was. In other words, the game looks even better than the thumbnail screenshots in this article contend, though you’d
forgiven for thinking that even these images are concept art.

As for lore, Ryan explained: “There’s a huge epic story going on in the
background, and it’s a struggle between creativity and chaos /
destruction. Part of what you’re coming into LEGO Universe to do is to
help save imagination. All you need to know today is: you’re coming in
on a spaceship to enter LEGO Universe. En route to your destination,
you pass by this black hole or this maelstrom out in space. It surges
out and strikes your ship, which then tears the ship apart, and you’re
now careening towards the center of the black hole. Your immediate goal
is to get off the spaceship.” The spaceship is designed as a fairly
linear teaching tool for the basic elements of the game, such as
movement, NPC interaction, combat (i.e. smashing crates which provides
you with loot, meaning the LEGO blocks and pieces needed to complete
challenges both functional and aesthetic, but more on that later), and
the platformer-style jump puzzles and obstacle courses which constitute
a large part of LEGO U gameplay. Players are clued into basic actions
primarily by large “thought bubbles” which clue you in on the correct
key to hit to begin an action, but also occasionally by
less-than-obtrusive popups.

Our first mission giver, “Bob”, activated our creative spark, which
practically speaking allows players to store imagination. Think of
imagination like mana - it allows you to do special abilities and build
things. When Bob asked use to do a bit of platform jumping to fetch
some creative orbs, our minifig fell to his death. In any case, you can
lose a few coins and lose progress toward your goal by dying, but
according to Ryan, the penalties won’t be harsh.

We satisified Bob’s mission requirements, did the turn in, and after a
refreshing bit of electrocution (to activate the creative spark, not
necessarily for psychotherapy), our minifig was full of imagination.
Sky Lane, our next mission giver, frantically gestured for us to get
off the ship, but to do that, we’ll need a “Thinking Hat” to create a
one-minifig rocketship constructed according to a transparent 3D
blueprint overlay hovering nearby. Ryan explained that this is only a
rough guideline, a number of different style sets and slight variations
could construct perfectly satisfactory rocketships.

Ryan showed us his minifig’s “passport”, where all of his character’s
“hundreds and hundreds” of achievements and missions are tracked. All
of the achievements give you specific rewards and LEGO points, which is
an overall score denoting how much progress you’ve made in the game.
The NetDevil crew began to search for all the various components of the
rocket ship. The nosecone required a bit of jumping, and here we found
a fun carryover from the Star Wars LEGO games. The Jedi-inspired double
jump, Ryan explained, was “such a fun feature that we had to have it.”


The Spaceship tutorial area.

One very novel feature of Sky Lane’s quest was that when we couldn’t
find the engine parts, the NPC clued us in on their general location
high above. It’s a quick shot of help that we saw throughout the demo,
but it’s especially nice that the game gives new players a hand without
excessive hand-holding via marks on the minimap and/or big green
arrows. You get a clue as needed, but the help the game offers is far
from smothering.

Since jumping wasn’t going to cover the distance, we came across our
first “quickbuild” - a carryover from the franchise games that is
essentially a pile of blocks that can be quickly constructed into
something useful. The bouncing platform we constructed could be used by
all the folks in the group, and grabbing the last of the “steampunk
style” rocketship parts resulted in an achievement and a “spot reward”
of a t-shirt we could immediately equip. The ship has plenty of nooks
and crannies and possibly other sets and achievements to be won, but
now that we had all the rocket parts we followed Sky Lane’s advice and
prepared to get off the ship. With the Thinking Hat in our backpack, we
returned to the 3D blueprint which we accessed to enter a “build area.”

In a build area, the minifig isn’t concerned with everything going
on in the area, but is taken to a sort of creative Zen LEGO state where
the player can entirely focus on building. The character still appears
and is animated in the persistent world and can chat with other
players, but doesn’t have to be concerned with hazards or
attackers.  Blocks can be taken out, put on the floor,
assembled, rotated, colorized, and just played with, but once the build
is finished, the pieces used are removed from inventory, the completed
rocketship is optimized for performance, and the whole thing goes in
our backpack. Ryan noted that all the aspects that you can never see on
the complete build aren’t rendered to save graphical memory, but
special “backend voodoo” like ambient occlusion is added to give the
blocks a very lifelike took,  We brought the ship to an escape
hatch and took off for the closest world.

Avant Gardens

“Judging from the name, you’d think that Avant Gardens is a pretty
peaceful place. Normally it is, except that it just got struck by the
energy from the black hole, so some bad things are happening there. The
world as seen from the research facility we touched down in was as
lush, green, and interesting as you might think, and after the splash
screen a status element informed us how many of each of the different
types of collectibles we’ve obtained from this world. Ryan affirmed
that you can return to each world after you’ve visited it to collect
anything you might have missed.

Collectibles aren’t just for show; Ryan pointed out a collectible flag
which, if we collect all 10 of these flags, will yield another “heart.”
The game uses a Zelda-style approach to hitpoints, so more hearts means
more hitpoint capacity. It’s a good time to point out that there are no
levels or classes in LEGO Universe; your character improves by
expanding your capacity for hitpoints, armor, and imagination, or by
improving your gear (gear defines your combat role).

Peter, the first NPC mission-giver we come to, is upset that one of the
research insects has escaped due to the upheaval. Poking a similar
creature in a nearby cage produced a quick and slightly ominous
cutscreen showing what we might be up against. The scout we came to
next was shocked to find we didn’t have a weapon, so he gave us a
choice of a sword, a club, or a spear. Ryan noted that there’s a whole
series of missions here but in the interest of time, we took the sword
and ran. The first enemies we came to were defective robots. The cool
thing being that once these robots were defeated, we could quick build
a cannon from their parts to use against other enemies in the area.

Ryan showed us the entrance to a cave packed with nasties that was our
first look at group content. Since you can return to any world at any
time and there are no level caps or requirements per se, you can come
back and complete this content later on when your group is looking for
something fun to do.

For now, we continued on to the front lines, where some friendly NPCs
had torn apart a bus and created a makeshift wall around them. More
missions were available here, and Ryan showed us some pet Doberman
guard dogs we could come back and tame. In addition to being allies in
combat, pets play an important part in completing certain challenges
(you might need your pet to stand on a plunger to unlock a bounce pad,
for example, or to dig for buried treasure). The taming skill is
acquired in a different world, so we had to pass by for now. Content
that you have to skip by might be a bit frustrating for MMO players
used to serially completing everything in an area and then moving on,
but this underscores the fact that LEGO Universe is a collector’s and
explorer’s paradise - you’re not “consuming” content as much as playing
in it. As if on cue, Ryan explained that there are tons of LEGO bricks
to be found in each area and no limit (at least for now) to the number
of bricks and pieces you can collect. The more you have, the cooler the
stuff you can make in the showcase area we came to next.

A battle near the Avant Gardens research

“A showcase is a little creative area used all throughout the different
worlds. They’re just fun little build challenges, in essence. In this
particular instance, the showcase directed us to build a bat. We’re in
a cave, that’s where bats live, build a bat. What a bat is, though, is
designed by you.” As Randall, a NetDevil programmer, lined up two wings
and clipped them onto a wrench, and added in more pieces to make a more
lifelike creature, Ryan explained that there was a lot of stuff going
on in the background.

“For one thing, LEGO bricks are extremely complex elements to render in
real time. That’s made even more complicated by the fact that LEGO has
exacting quality standards - if it doesn’t look LEGO enough, they won’t
accept it. Normally that’s ok because as a game developer, you have an
army of 3D artists that can optimize your geometry, remove polygons,
make it run well on lower-end machines, etc. What does the user at home
have when they’re building the bat? They don’t have a full development
staff, we have to have technology in place that comes close to what we
can do with a full development staff. We’ve invested a lot of time and
money in that, and today it’s all online.”

At first I thought Ryan was waxing poetic about the complexity of
stacking and rotating blocks and pieces in a 3D game world, no small
feat by any means, but then a curious thing happened. “When Randall
saves that model in his inventory, it goes up to a server farm, it
analyzes that model in lots of different ways, and makes it good enough
to run on most people’s computers, and then he can submit it to a
showcase and (after extensive moderation) other people can see it.” The
model “bakes in” ambient occlusions and high tech features to mirror
the lighting environment, and a simple two minute bat looked
surprisingly good. Ryan explained that while most games are using
texture-based approaches to graphics rendering, given LEGO U’s geometry
and emphasis on absolute customizability, it made sense to stick to a
highly optimized high polygon approach.

 A quickbuild took us across a bridge, and we found ourselves
at a monument construction site where a nearby road had been washed out
by a surge of energy. Peter had followed us from the research facility,
and we wended our way through an obstacle course of sorts, including
lazers, cooling fans, and other hazards. The majority of these kind of
puzzles had several solutions - you could switch off the lazers,
destroy the lazers, or just jump over them, for a fairly easy example.
We took a shortcut up the mountain and found a quickbuild for an
elevator. “Some quickbuilds require more imagination, so if you don’t
have enough, you can’t do them,” Ryan explained. With less imagination
we could have found a different way around, but this is one of the ways
LEGO U rewards veteran players for the progress they’ve made.

After scarfing up a few collectable flags and a ton of bricks, we
returned to Peter to complete the mission, providing us with a cool
social item and the ability to build a race course over the monument. A
quickbuild created a start and finish line, thus unlocking the course
for ourselves and anyone that’s completed the achievement.
 Even though the racecourse was nearly completely developed,
it wasn’t part of the demo. Ryan explained that there’s a series of
achievements, medals, and a scoreboard listing times associated with
the race. You can even work with friends to optimize the racecourse by
removing hazards, thus improving everyone’s time, or just hang out in
the social area near the racecourse, do some shopping for cool weapons
and accessories, or work on a few nearby showcases.  And while
most of the game’s story is told in large public areas, one can only
imagine the fun possibilities that replayable content like racing will

Ryan also pointed out mounted binoculars (like the kind you see around
tourist attractions) nearby that help clue players in on content they
might have missed. One binocular showed us a nearby buffalo that, with
the proper taming skill, we could add to our pet collection, and
another hinted at where we were going next by showing us a rocketpad. A
third hidden binocular showed us a pirate on a little boat surrounded
by sharks, just for fun.

Noting that kids are usually more comfortable with a keyboard than a
mouse, Ryan explained that the game is designed to be played with
either. Clicking on a binocular or “w”ing up to it and pressing the
shift key will produce the same result. The game will interpret which
approach you’re using and give you feedback based on that. It’s a
intuitive interface design approach that’s good not just for kids but
anyone hoping to play LEGO U on a laptop as well. It's a good time to
note that though the game features full chat, layers of filters will be
available to keep kids safe, and (again) no player-created models will
be publicly viewable without passing through multiple tiers of

Gnarled Forest

We were off again to a Temple of Doom-styled jungle forest world that
played host to not only some indigenous baddies, but a host of pirates
that somehow managed to crash there. We donned some better gear - any
player can equip any piece of equipment, generally speaking - and gear
also provides new abilities. With each new weapon, I was surprised to
note that not only the combat animation changed, but the players
default stance changed as well. It sounds like a small thing until you
see the myriad weapons choices available to you.

The Gnarled Forest quickbuild bridge and
skull torches.

The storyline mission is all about helping the pirates out of their
mess, but since time was at a premium, we steamed on through the world.
Our first stop was a quickbuild that drew a red “X” on the ground,
denoting pirate treasure. If we had a pet, we could dig up that
treasure, but we had to pass by for now. Coming to a ravine, we had
another jump puzzle before us, and true to the game’s form, tips
appeared when we got into trouble. Ryan took time to note that the
flaming LEGO skulls on stakes at the foot of the bridge would rotate
and waggle their jaws if clicked on. Unfortunately we didn’t have a
squirt gun, which we were told snuffs out the torch until the skull
spits back water in your face.

We continued on to a spooky cave filled with undead pirates, which
proved to be a tougher fight than any we’d seen yet. A new quickbuild
was before us after the fight; it consisted of three movable jump
platforms that had to be arranged in the correct order before we could
hop out of the cave. Ryan pointed out the golden “Imagination Brick”
hovering overhead. There’s only one of these per level, and it would
take some clever placement of the platforms to grab this special brick.

And after the cave, to lighten the mood, we saw a bunch of very alive
pirates scrambling in fear from a monkey in a tree that had somehow
found a pistol. We mollified the monkey with one of the life-restoring
bananas taken from a nearby tree. After moving through an area with
those classic LEGO prisons built into the walls, we came upon another
social area with a pirate ship somehow stuck in the trees. Completing
an achievement here unlocks a shooting gallery in the ship, which like
the racecourse in Avant Gardens, is some pure unlockable
leaderboard-driven fun.

The Gnarled Forest social area.

Speaking of pure fun, Ryan demoed an achievement ability that makes all
your nearby friends dance a pirate jig, and that will no doubt be great
fun for at least the first hundred times it happens. But the real
kicker was the element of the game most popular with kids: burning your
butt at the nearby campfire. It’s classic slapstick, and the ensuing
animations make full use of the comic moment. Burning butt minifigs
jumping around like popcorn in Gnarled Forest might just be the new
Night Elves dancing on the mailbox, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Living in LEGO Universe

We wrapped up the demo in a private build area that each and every
character will have to call home, and to me this conjures up so many
memories of playing with LEGOs as a kid. It alone, for a LEGO nerd like
me looking around an office cluttered with "serious" LEGO models, would
be worth the price of admission. Here’s where you can invite friends to
play with your blocks and build absolutely whatever you like: a castle,
a dragon, Yankee Stadium, a scale replica of Serenity. The only limit
is the blocks you’ve collected; you can color and arrange them however
you like. It’s LEGO nirvana without the trip to the upscale mall and
the hefty price tag, but perhaps the coolest thing is that you'll be
able to order a kit with all the actual physical pieces for any of your
creations. To wit, the rocket ship we constructed early in the demo, in
all its various forms, sat on the table in front of me during the demo.

That’s as close as the game will get to microtransactions, however.
Mark Hansen explained that LEGO Universe will be a subscription game.
Parents and gaming purists everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief -
virtual bricks, pieces, and accessories won’t be available for purchase
with real money, and glorious LEGO constructs will be as much a sign of
LEGO U saavy as creative ability (since you'll have to collect all your
bricks in game first). Ryan and Mark hinted at some form of PvP in the
game, whether it’s smash ‘em up racing, minigame hijinx, or perhaps
something a little more close and personal, and also noted that while
items make the minifig in the early going, you might have to make some
permanent choices later in the game. 

Overall, we couldn't be more impressed with what we saw of LEGO
Universe. The graphics and art direction are absolutely top-notch, the
gameplay looks to be as solid as anything we've seen in the LEGO niche,
and what we saw - especially the showcases and private build area -
absolutely captures the creative spirit of LEGO. Our only
concern is that subscription MMOs have traditionally depended on
compelling yet cyclical gameplay (large-scale PvP, dungeons, raids),
but NetDevil's plans for the "elder game" are still a secret.
Nevertheless, given NetDevil's philosophy of "vertical slice"
development, many of the pieces seem to be falling in place, so to
speak, for the game's targetted release in 2010, and we'll look forward
to more information on LEGO Universe in the coming months.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our LEGO Universe Game Page.

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